RANDLE & SPLIFF - A Tale of Space

by Mary K. Reid

"What ails thee", old friend, I asked.

Cartiledge was reclining on his divan is a state of dishabille, and with a slight sweat upon his brow, a flush upon his loins, and dew pond in his belly-button.

"I fear it may be the tiger prawns I had for lunch," he said. "Perhaps I should have cooked them first. Please read to me and excuse me if I occasionally interrupt you to puke into this handy galvanised bucket."

I browsed through his bookshelves, passing over 'Landladies in Lycra' and 'Snot Twirling For Fun' before settling on his well-thumbed three-quarter bound edition of SPLIFF WITHINGHAM AND JEFF RANDLE, SPACE DETECTIVES, GO TO MARS

I opened it at random and started to read:

It was a curly summers' day down a country lane in old rural England, possibly in Rutland, circa 1935. One of the great big wars that everybody thought would be the last ever great big war, but which wouldn't, was over and the next one, which everybody assumed would never happen, but which would, had yet to begin. Moths buzzed away amongst the hibiscus. Do moths buzz? Probably not, ornithology was never my strong suit. It was one of those warm summers nobody thought they had ever experienced before, but had, most recently in 1934, and all was suffused with the warm balmy glow of innocence, including the inner thighs of our favourite Nurse, Miss Flavia Elsingham. Later there would be buttered scones for tea.

I was out looking for badgers I could tame or at least slightly bend to my will, when suddenly, as if from out of nowhere, but actually from out of an over-revved V-8 engine, the throaty roar of an over-revved V-8 engine rent the quiet composed harmony of the countryside. Even lizards twitched under their rocks, but that was mostly because they were having wet-dreams about lizards of the opposite sex. A Triumph Spitfire (with overhead camshafts) steamed round a narrow bend shrouded with high hedge-rows and screeched to a halt in the dusty lane. The driver, a ginger-haired lad, vaulted out.

"Jeff Randle," he said, thrusting forward both his hand and his pugnacious jaw in greeting.

"No, that's me," I said. "You must be young Spliff Withingham?"

"Gosh," Captain Randle, he said, without actually confirming his identity, or his youthfulness, "I'm really looking forward to working with you. The chaps at the MOD didn't say exactly what the project what but I've always admired your work, especially on genetic selectivity in the Mottled Skipper."

I addressed the bulletin on my clipboard. "You come with some pretty impressive credentials yourself, young Withingham. Your work on Topsy Turvy Particles is second to none."

"Shucks," he said, "I was just lucky to get a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation. Call me Spliff."

"Perhaps later when we know the cut of each other's jib a little better," I said. "I see you studied under Trubbshaw at the East Kilbride Agricultural College. A good man and a better woman."

"Indeed, a leader in the field of womb transplant surgery," acknowledged Withingham, colouring slightly, which was not easy for a man of his complexion. "But that was merely a diversion and should not detract from his work on Elasticity Theory, Push-Pull Hydrodynamics and Thrust-Quenching."

"Well," Withingham, I said. "I want you now to walk with me down this narrow country lane to the romantic cottage I share with my attractive wife, Gisella, otherwise known as Mrs Randle, where you will live with us as our lodger whilst we pursue our researches in my subterranean workshop. And please, whilst we saunter, keep a look out for any badgers."

"Lead on," said Withingham. "I presume you will send a donkey to tow my roadster to the local garage."

"Better than that, I said, "I'll send my manservant, Estovan, as soon as he's finished arranging his gladioli."

"Splendid," said Withingham. "Perhaps you could tell me more details of our work as we walk?"

"I'll fill you in," I said.

By the time we arrived at the cottage, I had filled in Spliff several times. He disguised his limp well, but was obviously shaken. He struck a match from the newel post on the kissing gate and lit up a small cheroot, which he immediately stubbed out upon seeing our No Smoking sign. "It's a wonder," he said, pocketing his pocket hummidor "how, especially in the world of pulp fiction, you can't find a decent big cheroot these days." I passed on that one with a discreet cough.

My comely wife Gisella greeted us at the rose-entwined doorway. She was snipping the heads off the dog roses with her secateurs, to prepare a pot-pourri, whatever that is.

She took us through to the kitchen and poured our visitor an enema.

"Lordy," she said, in her Savannah Creole Pidgin. "I bin lastick bostick, and am creamed enough to grindle three shanks."

She poured glasses of Chantilly Cobbler and Rory Gallagher and we sat and chatted idly while I attempted to explain my wife's mixed ancestry to an increasingly incredulous Withingham.

Then I invited her to show young Spliff to his room in the guest annexe.

"Go lick me," she said, but I hoped this was a figurative or colloquial injunction and not a literal one.

Spliff wobbled off on shaky legs leaving me to peruse the classified pages of the Devizes Free Advertiser.

Five only slightly shop-soiled Translational Interlocutors were offered for sale, but not the Intermolecular Grovelator I had hoped to find. I made a note of the number of a certain Madame Zizi who offered for sale ex-war department solenoids.

After Spliff had dried his underwear, pomaded his chest-wig and read a short inspirational lesson from the works of St Ignatius Loyola, he rejoined us for our evening meal. I sat him down at our vast oak refectory table and rang for the servants, before remembering we didn't have any, only Estovan who didn't work nights, unless Giselle had booked him to trim her topiary.

Giselle appeared in a Voertrekker style Dutch cloth cap, suspenders and tights. She called me a wastrel and began to taunt me with ostrich feathers, whilst doing a vaguely erotic wiggly dance, but I told her not to bother and to bring some kind of exotic bread, perhaps ciabatta or even focietta. I inferred that in the last resort I would settle for a Sainsbury's Potato and Onion Batch Loaf, organic, mind you. But that would just be between the two of us.

"When have I got time to go down Sainsbury's," she said, temporarily forgetting her Pidgin dialect. She turned on her stiletto heels and stumped out, which incidentally left a number of holes in the expensive designer rubber flooring. I watched her go. Well, I think we both did.

"Now, young Spliff," I said. "Later a maid or henchman, I don't know which, I use a temp agency, will mop the spilt diesel oil from your tunic and clean your goggles. Meanwhile tell me what you think about this?"

"About your shirttails?"

"No, they just flopped out by mistake. I didn't have time to dress properly this morning. Rather distracted by badgers, you know how it is, well, probably not. This is what I meant," I said.

I unrolled some engineering drawings on the refectory table. They were on the peculiar starchy paper that Greek chefs use to wrap king prawns before frying them in a light tempura batter. What's it called? Never mind.

I continued. There was no stopping me, unless you applied a ligature to my neck and exerted a strong rotational pressure until there was first a faint creaking and then a final crack.

"These are the preliminary designs for the new rocket motor, which will power our ship on its voyage to Mars," I said.

Spliff pondered over the designs, but I wiped it up later. I couldn't help but notice his epaulets were wilting and made a mental note to get a quote from We Are Leather Refurbishments Limited.

"They're impressive," said Spliff.

"You mean the twin carburettors," I said. "And each has its own turbo injectors."

"No, I was referring to your wife's thighs."

We spent the rest of the evening exchanging quadratic equations and generally Malmorrokoring. A jolly time was had by all until Spliff excused himself claiming the need for an early night to rest his groin. I bid him goodnight. Sooner or later I would have to face him with the problem of rotational negativity and the corresponding effect of Coriolis in a tangential universe. Without the answers to these problems Mars would forever remain beyond our grip.

Filo pastry, that's what the stuff is colled. Sorry, it just came to me.

Before I myself, and indeed my wife, settled down that night, in our separate bedrooms, I hasten to add, I went to the window of the west turret of my cottage and looked through my brass-ensconced telescope towards the hills in the West. Or it could have been the East; I was slightly disoriented because I had just snacked on a slightly off sausage-roll and was experiencing some gastric discomfort, and besides since I could not yet afford even the most affordable Global Positional Satellite Tracking Device, I could not only not verify my position but could not count how many times I had used the word not, in the last sentence, because I was very tired.

However, a glint of reflected light did manage to raise my level of awareness from a sub sentient level, and, in doing so, attracted my attention. I tightened the focus on the telescope (it can be done believe me]. The image of an old enemy hiding being an outcrop of stone or rock or something and watching us through high-power binoculars swam into view. It was Otto Schenk, the world famous evil German genius, created by Angus McVicar, and now obviously re-incarnated through the auspices of Zen and Doctor Frugal's Mescalin-flavoured herbals teas.

What did the evil Otto Schenk have in store for us? I wondered. And would it involve young juvenile characters who would stowaway upon our spaceship? Very likely, I thought. My mind hummed with possibilities (it was to the tune of 'Mull of Kintyre) before I eventually fell into a dreamless sleep, except for a few dreams where badgers were attempting to bite my fingers off, and a left-handed swinger from the Miami Dolphins failed to score a single home run in any season, thus rendering my claim in the National Lottery as invalid.

The next morning dawned, as it had a habit of doing in this part of the world. I finished herding my ferrets and sent Estovan down to the chemist for some Alka Seltzer. My stomach was still giving me gyp.

Spliff had risen early to muck out the stables. Suddenly he came up with the answer. It was a staggering feat of lateral thinking. "Horses are for riding!" he said, smiting his forehead, and falling backwards into a pile of steaming ordure.

After he had regained consciousness, I congratulated him on his insight, albeit in slightly disparaging terms, which may or may not have included terms like 'tit' and 'wanker'.

"No, no," he said, strapping on his Lederhosen (it was the weekend of the Bavarian Beer Festival, and he wanted to get into the spirit of the affair, without actually going there). "What I mean is, horses are for riding and so are rockets. Horses have saddles, but rockets do not. Why don't we put saddles on our rockets. What I'm suggesting is that instead of thinking of our ship as a rocket with engines attached, why don't be think of it as engines attached to a rocket."

"Where do the saddles come in?" I asked.

"We sit on them. Imagine the weight saved when you don't actually have to build living quarters."

"How do we breathe," I said. I can't help it. Small practicalities always bothered me.

"We consume these oxygen globules, which I've patented, which go directly to our lungs."

"How do we withstand the vacuum of space?"

"We tie ourselves up very tightly with bandages, not ordinary bandages, mind you, but those formed from recycled tyres."

"Brilliant, I said, "I'll go away and finish the designs for the whole concept immediately."

"By the way," he said, "it would be better if it were all built out of balsa wood."

Three months later, thanks to a government grant, we strapped ourselves onto our saddles, astride our balsa wood rocket, and held our breath whilst Gisella lit the blue touch paper.

Within three weeks we were on Mars.


Thanks to our foresight in bringing along with us several do-it-yourself greenhouse kits, (in flat-packs of course) we were able to establish a base at our landing site on Mars fairly quickly. So we settled down to growing tomatoes and forcing our rhubarb. We discovered that aphids were practically non-existent on mars, which was a big plus, enabling us to cut back on both organic and non-organic pest control agents.

We also found a large tumulus which we suspected contained the graves of dead Martians, but both of us were too squeamish to attempt any excavation. Unfortunately their racial memories lingered in the soil and continued to pervade our dreams, instilling in both of us a lust for Macdonald's Double Cheeseburgers, with medium fries.

Ten weeks into the mission, Spliff became very homesick and I had to smack him several times. Then I became homesick and he smacked me. We both took down the nude pictures of Gisella from our lockers and ritualistically burnt them, but it didn't help.

After sixteen weeks the water-pills were had brought with us ran out and we were both suffering from dehydration and reduced to eating kelp. Unfortunately there was no kelp on Mars, because there were no oceans. Okay if you want to be niggly there was dried kelp from the dried oceans, but these were in fact vast fields of volcanic lava flows and not seas as such, so that knocked that on the head. No kelp nowhere, boss.

In a last ditch last resort last everything endeavour, we set out together pulling sledges tied together with clothes pegs to try and find the transponder on a rescue rocket that had been sent out from our Mission Control Centre in Maudley Street in Clitheroe. We found it buried in the sand ten miles from our base. It was attached to the burnt out cardboard casing of a 'Brocks' Mars Rocket Special firework (Take special care when lighting within the vicinity of small children').

This wasn't the end, although it might have been if I hadn't managed to stop Spiff gibbering by slapping him vigorously around the cheeks with a wet haddock, which I'd found in the emergency rations, along with two Twix bars, six packs of chewing gum, a can of Stella Artois, and four hundred condoms (Durex Especially Knobbly Variety), and a spade.

Using the spade we (well mostly me actually) dug down into the sand of Mars and eventually found the spores of a mushroom like algae, which could sustain us for hundred of years, provided we entered entirely voluntarily into a parasitic union where we lay in a state of suspended hibernation and allowed their tendrils to enter our hearts, lungs and other vital organs, through an intermediary medium of glycolic acid with ceramide. And why wouldn't we?

Several hundred years later, Mars was conquered and settled as part of an Islamic Diaspora. A gang of sappers from the Finsbury Park mosque dug us up and sent us home to be re-united with Giselle and Estovan who had spent the intervening period in hibernation (at least that's what they called it). We were given a ticker-tape welcome on the streets of Lubbock, Texas. It wasn't the best deal, but it was the best deal we could get.

The End.